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Research integrity ‘unsatisfactory’, say MPs

The UK government should consider setting up an external regulatory body overseeing research integrity, the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee said on 28 July.

The report, “Peer review in scientific publications”, also recommends that all research units in the UK have a staff member in charge of research integrity.

“Although it is not the role of peer review to police research integrity and identify fraud or misconduct, it does, on occasion, identify suspicious cases,” said Andrew Miller, chairman of the committee, in a statement.

“While there is guidance in place for journal editors when ethical misconduct is suspected, we found the general oversight of research integrity in the UK to be unsatisfactory and complaisant,” he added.

The committee described research integrity in the UK as “confused”, with different organisations—such as the Committee on Publication Ethics and the UK Research Integrity Office (UKRIO)—having slightly different remits and audiences.

There was a need, says the committee, for an oversight body to give “advice and support to research employers and assurance to research funders, across all disciplines”.

However, in a statement on 28 July, the UKRIO said it was “perplexed by comments to the committee that we do not cover all disciplines” and pointed out that it was originally set up for the life sciences research community as a “pilot for a wider remit”.

The organisation welcomed the report’s recommendations on research integrity.

“We agree entirely that scientific misconduct damages peer review and science as a whole. UKRIO welcomes the conclusion that all UK research institutions should have a specific member of staff leading on research integrity and the receipt of misconduct allegations, a concept we have championed for some years,” said James Parry, acting head of UKRIO.

On the peer review process, the report concluded that “despite the many criticisms and the little solid evidence on the efficacy of pre-publication editorial peer review”, many considered it so important that it had to be retained.

However, the process could be improved and researchers should aim for the “gold standard” of making their data publicly available and fully disclosed, it said.

The committee also warned that journal editors’ assessments of a paper’s importance and impact would “always require subjective judgement”. Nevertheless, using peer review to assess the technical quality of scientific papers was important and more objective.

The committee endorsed new approaches that “focus on carrying out a technical assessment prior to publication and making an assessment of impact after publication”. It praised the journal PLoSONE as a successful example of such a model.

The committee encouraged other “innovative approaches” in scientific publishing, such as pre-print servers in the physics community.

It said that such servers could be a good way for researchers to get early feedback on preliminary research, and called on other disciplines to consider using them.

The committee noted, however, that pre-print servers might not work where commercialisation and patentability were at stake.

The report raised concerns over the use of journal impact factors as a proxy for research quality. It said that researchers had indicated to the committee that journal impact factors affected their careers and reputations, even though research funders said they did not use them.

“There is an element of chance in getting articles accepted in high-impact journals, depending on topicality and other factors. It is important that anyone assessing the quality of work by an individual researcher or research institution considers the value of the published articles themselves, rather than relying on Impact Factor,” said Miller.

Although the committee found no evidence of a “crisis” in the availability of peer reviewers, it urged research funders to make sure that all early-career researchers got the opportunity to train in peer review.

Research councils should outline how they would support training of early-career researchers as the previous funding stream, Robert’s funding, has come to an end.

Another important task, said the committee, was for research institutions to recognise the work carried out by peer reviewers—for example, by awards and letters of endorsement.